Tag Archives: multiculturalism

Across the cultural divide

I have wanted to write this post for a while, but as I’ve worked on drafts in my head I have kept finding myself stumbling over clumsy expressions about an issue I really don’t want to get ‘wrong’. I find myself coming face to face with assumptions I have made in the past which make me question whether I really understand the area I am tip-toeing around at all. The reality is that I am an outsider in this territory, and the urge to turn away and run is strong. But that is not really how I do things, so I won’t.

The issue I have been grappling with is, essentially, the authenticity of my first novel. And when I say authenticity, I am talking about the thorny area of cultural appropriation: my protagonist is of mixed heritage, Bengali and British. The folk tales of Bangladesh are woven into the fabric of the plot as it unfolds, and the challenges facing Bengali people carving out their lives in Britain are integral to the journeys of several characters.

Now I lived and breathed that story and those characters for the several years it took me to write a first draft. My protagonist, Lili, borrowed much from the young women I taught at a school in Tower Hamlets. And in fact the first tentative steps from plan to prose were made at an Arvon writing retreat that I attended with a small group of those young women: I discussed my ideas with them, asked their advice on elements of language, listened as they told me their stories.

As the draft developed further, I read copious research files on the experiences of different generations of immigrants from Bangladesh on settling in East London. I devoured Bengali recipe books, and tales of the mythology that reached back into Bangladeshi culture.


And eventually I had a novel of which I was proud: the culture that I was borrowing from was part of it, but by no means all, and I had worked hard to avoid stereotypes. Lili was complex and engaging, and the London that I knew and loved was intrinsic to every page.

I got an agent on board, we made a few tweaks, and then went out to publishers. And then things sort of stalled: almost all of the feedback we got was positive, particularly around the multicultural elements, but there were no takers. For a while I wondered whether this was in part a response to the monocultural bias that is clearly evident in the publishing industry, particularly when it comes to books for children and young adults. I latched on to a campaign that had been established to encourage more diverse books, and wrote about it to try to explain why diversity was so important to me. But the people I reached out to appeared to have no desire to engage with me: sure, my book was diverse. But I wasn’t.

Nothing overt was said, but my enthusiasm for that first novel dwindled. I still loved the characters and their story, but thinking about them made me feel guilty. I couldn’t quite put my finger on the source of that guilt, but in a creative landscape where the smallest excuse is enough to give the self-doubt demons all the strength they need to inflict silence I decided it was time to focus on something else.

Fast forward two years, and I found myself reading Lionel Shriver’s address to the Brisbane Writer’s Festival about cultural appropriation. And whilst there were elements of what she said that I couldn’t help but agree with, I was embarrassed by the crassness of her refusal to engage with the very real concerns of those whose culture had been exploited. And I began to wonder whether maybe the book I’d written was part of that entitled, white exploitation that can only come from a position of privilege.

I began to wonder whether Lili’s story was actually mine to tell at all, whether in trying to push out my interpretation of the challenges facing a mixed heritage family in East London I was standing in the way of more authentic voices that might be trying to do the same.

But then once I’d started off down that rabbit hole any claim to integrity began to dissolve entirely.

Because it’s not just Bengali culture I could be accused of appropriating. There’s a question of class too, one which is perhaps much more central to the novel that I wrote. Am I not, as a comfortably-off graduate from a middle-class background appropriating the struggle of working class families? And there’s an important theme about the status of elderly people in society – and teenagers for that matter. Are their stories mine to tell?

These are not exact parallels, but they are still examples of where I am using someone else’s truth to build a narrative. And all of these groups of society lack the privilege that is inherent in my existence as a thirty-something, white, university-educated woman.

Except it is here that I grudgingly accept some of Shriver’s points: without stealing other people’s stories there is very little left for the novelist to do. Interestingly the protagonists of the two novels I’ve written since are much closer to me in terms of social and cultural background. That wasn’t a conscious choice I don’t think – and whilst I’ve enjoyed exploring a world that is closer to my own I can’t guarantee that my ideas in the future will not be influenced by a more global outlook. As a writer I am drawn to the outsider – and culture is often a big part of that.

There is also the argument that if we want more diversity in our literature then that needs to come from all quarters – not just from those writers who are themselves ‘diverse’.

And so on balance, despite my reservations about Lili Badger, I am still proud of what I’ve written. And I don’t want to shy away from giving voice to people from different cultures in my writing in the future.

I will continue to endeavour to be respectful and avoid stereotypes – a courtesy I would hope I extend to all of my characters, not just those whose culture is different from my own. But the bigger the gap, the more work there is to be done to find authenticity and integrity – and the more difficult the challenge of convincing others that this really is a story that you can tell.


Writing Bubble

P is for pho


Often people ask me what I miss most about not living in London any more, and the answer’s always the same. There’s the people we left behind of course, but actually in some ways the physical distance between us now means that we make more effort to see the people who really matter. It’s amazing how knowing someone’s only half an hour away can turn into an excuse not to see them yet the opposite becomes true when meeting up’s a real mission.

But I digress. The thing I really miss about not living in London any more is the food. It’s not like there’s not good food in Devon: the potential for really fresh, really local ingredients is of course much higher than in the city. But without the melting pot of cultures that I used to feel privileged to be a part of, our menu is much more limited.

Where we used to live in London we were surrounded by fantastic Vietnamese restaurants. There was a big Turkish community too, so the kebabs were out of this world. Not to mention the Punjabi lamb chops at Tayyabs, the Sunday dim sum at Yi Ban, the Argentinian steak at Buen Ayre and the special-occassion sushi at Soseki.

It’s Vietnamese food I always seek out first when we go back though. There’s something about the fresh herbs, the slippery noodles, the seafood. And I especially love pho. It’s like the best sort of comfort food, warming and flavourful and healthy. I miss the ritual of the little plate of basil and bean sprouts and chilli, alternating spoons of broth with digging around with chopsticks for more substantial morsels of deliciousness.

When we were on honeymoon in Vietnam I had it for breakfast every day. We’ve tried to recreate it ourselves to varying degrees of success, but without the authentic ingredients it’s never quite the same. The bowl above was devoured moments after the photo was taken in Tre Viet, a restaurant I’d heartily recommend if ever you find yourself hungry on Mare Street.

P is for pho.


Joining in with The Alphabet Photography Project over at PODcast. 

Writing diversity

When I come to the section about ethnicity in a diversity monitoring form I tick the box ‘White British’. I’m not that white, especially in the summer. My olive skin has had me mistaken for many different nationalities – even Turkish and Nepalese when travelling in those countries. But my ethnic origins are not nearly so interesting: I am half Welsh, half English, and as far as the box tickers are concerned, well and truly white.

So you may think it strange that the protagonist in my first novel, Lili Badger, has a strong Bengali heritage, that though her father is White British like me much of the fabric of the novel is woven from a culture to which I am an outsider.

My awareness of and interest in the multicultural world we live in began when I was very young, even though the villages I grew up in were about as monocultural as you could get. My Welsh grandparents had lived in East Africa for over twenty years, and my dad spent a good portion of his childhood there. It was not until I was in my late twenties that I was to finally find myself in Tanzania, and when I did there was something strangely familiar about it – something that had seeped into my bones from the stories I’d heard and the artefacts that adorned my grandparents’ house.

For my own part, even though being born in Wales hardly made me an ethnic minority, I was made starkly aware of my otherness when we moved from there to Birmingham when I was eight years old. My accent was so alien that to my new schoolmates I might as well have been speaking another language at first. I did my best to disguise it, though always felt relief sweep over me when I returned to see my extended family in Cardiff and could relax back into my natural voice. I never did learn the language – it was not a part of the curriculum in Wales during my early primary years. When I moved from Birmingham to London aged sixteen I began to more openly reclaim my Welshness as part of my identity, much to the amusement of my new friends there. I investigated Welsh language courses I could do in the city but never committed – something I still regret.

I vividly remember a conversation I had in a run down classroom at the top of the first school I worked at in Tower Hamlets. I was a teaching assistant, and had been assigned to support a group of boys who had recently come to the country from Bangladesh. As we muddled through the beginnings of a conversation they asked me where I came from. When I named a place that was not England, they excitedly asked if I could speak to them in my language. The surprise and disappointment on their faces when I had to admit that I did not speak the language of my country has stayed with me.

It’s something I have in common with Lili, or rather I suppose she has in common with me. Being in the second generation of her family to have been born in England it is perhaps more understandable that she does not speak Bengali, but it bothers her sometimes – and is even more of an issue for some of the people she crosses paths with, Bengali and White British alike.

Lili is not defined by her ethnicity. It is a part of her of course, but her driving force is her creativity, her love of stories and her search for a voice of her own. There are other characters in the novel who have been shaped by their background quite differently – Lili’s brother Arun for one, who in his search for his own identity is drawn to the world of radical Islam – and I drew on the diversity I saw in the communities I lived and worked in for nearly ten years to develop those characters.

I was nervous at first. When the idea for the novel first came to me, several years ago when I was way too busy teaching to actually write it, I had no doubt that Lili’s family had their origins in Bangladesh. Over the time I had to think about it before I began to write I almost lost my nerve. Would people not think I was a fraud, writing about a culture different from my own? Could I really accurately represent the hopes and dreams, let alone the day to day life, of a British Bengali family living in the East End?

But then I decided I was being ridiculous. My research had been wide and deep. I had worked with many children and families during my time as a teacher, all of them different, all of them unique. I was not trying to write the ultimate story of the British Bengali experience, only one story. And to bring it to life, to enrich it, I had a wealth of material to draw on.

And though on one level Lili Badger is the story of a girl whose mother is Bengali and whose father is White British, on another more important level it is the story of a girl. A girl whose hopes and dreams and day to day experiences echo those of many other teenagers, whatever their ethnicity.

Because if those ten years working in Tower Hamlets and Newham taught me anything, it is that people of different backgrounds have more things in common than the things that tell them apart. It took working in a multicultural environment for me to really realise that, for me to become frustrated by rash generalisations about people from a particular culture and to become even more incensed by the people who aim to divide our multicultural Britain and to pitch people like me against everyone else.

You would have thought I might have realised this as a reader. I have devoured books all my life, though it is only really since having the privilege of working amongst people from so many different cultures that I have actively sought out books from different cultures myself. Previous to that, whilst I might have described my tastes as diverse, what was easily available was resolutely monocultural. It is this which is one of the many reasons why I believe writing diversity is so important – whatever the background of the author, there is a whole world of inspiration out there and we should not be afraid to use it.



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